Case study: Volunteering goes professional

VSO's protected secondment scheme with NHS Scotland is a landmark in its drive to recruit more mid-career volunteers.

The problem
International development charity VSO has suffered a dramatic decrease in the number of professionals under 50 volunteering. The proportion of the 750 volunteers the charity sends to developing countries each year has dropped from nearly 79 per cent in 2000, to 48 per cent in 2006, leading to concerns about a skills gap opening up in its programmes.

VSO director Judith Brodie says: “Older volunteers bring a wealth of experience, but we also need people mid-career who can take up placements in perhaps more challenging countries. In Gambia for example, a volunteer will often have to travel by motorbike over poorly-made roads which is understandably less appealing to some older volunteers.”

The drop has come at a time when the recipients of VSO’s assistance are becoming more demanding in terms of the volunteers they work with. “The ante has been upped by partner developing countries saying things like ‘we want a doctor with five years’ qualifications,’” says Cathy Hewitt, VSO’s Scotland Manager.

There is also been more emphasis, from VSO’s side, on long-term capacity-building rather than just short-term gap-plugging in the countries they work in. However, “teaching people to do the same as them required highly qualified teachers,” says Hewitt. “And they are a rarer commodity than the people who are volunteering to go because they are busy getting on with their careers.”

The process
VSO decided to refine its “blanket marketing” for volunteers, seeking instead to target mid-career health and education professionals by working with Government.

The charity learned the Scottish Executive had formed its own partnership with the Malawian government, making £100,000 available to support the country's primitive health service. VSO approached the Executive and asked whether it could work with NHS Scotland to deliver that policy.

However, VSO was concerned that its traditional compensatory package of local allowances, flights, accommodation, and some national insurance and pension contributions was no longer enough to convince professionals to give up their jobs mid-career.

According to Hewitt, professionals have “zero incentive to volunteer other than the vital force within them that they want to do it.” This is particularly true in healthcare, where workers “need to continually validate experience and qualifications in order to remain in the field”.

She also cites the unpleasant prospect for professionals of having to re-apply for their job on the open market on return – with a two-year professional black hole on their CVs. Brodie also suggests that the ever-greater difficulty of getting a foot on the property ladder makes mid-careers professionals reluctant to absorb the two-year hiatus in their earnings.

Extensive consultation about these issues with the Scottish Executive’s Pay and Pensions committee and HR professionals in NHS Scotland eventually resulted in the establishment of a scheme that ensures volunteers’ jobs are kept open for when they return, and their pension contributions continue to be paid while they are away. They will also receive professional recognition for their work abroad.

The results
According to Hewitt, this VSO-NHS Scotland protected secondment scheme is the first of its kind in the UK, and is “way out there in terms of employee protection.”

At the beginning of February, the first two health workers set out for a two-year placement in Malawi. A further ten volunteers will start work there this year, with another ten going in 2008.

VSO is hoping other public bodies will replicate the NHS Scotland model. The Scottish Executive says: "A range of organisations, including other UK government departments, have expressed an interest, but want to measure the success and effectiveness of this pilot."

VSO has also contributed to Nigel Crisp's review of the English NHS's relationship with the developing world, and was delighted when he took up its recommendations on protected secondments.

Marketing adviser Graeme Chisholm said: "VSO will be negotiating at government department level to turn these recommendations into reality."

The charity has also been working with education authorites, with the aim of setting up a similar scheme for teachers.

"We often find that public sector workers leave their jobs when they volunteer," says Chisholm. “The beauty of the secondment model is that the employee isn't penalised for giving more."

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